From herding cattle to successful commercial sugarcane farmer, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast grower, Dono Bohlela says while his road to success may have been littered with hardship and tragedy, the sacrifices he made were not only worth it, but have now begun to pay off.
When commercial sugarcane farmer Dono Bohlela speaks about his business and the journey he has travelled to get to where he is today, his words ring with resolve and determination.
It was certainly no easy ride for Bohlela – he was born and raised in an era where education was scarce for isiZulu-speaking children and there were enormous challenges for those wanting to make their way in the world outside the confines of rural areas in South Africa.
With his schooling equivalent to a Grade 2 in today’s world, Bohlela’s first job was to herd cattle for his family and neighbours in Mtwalume where he grew up. A job weeding sugarcane on a neighbouring farm then followed.
It was while working on the farm the youngster made up his mind there was surely more to life than weeding!
“I was lucky to get a job as a tractor conductor at the nearby Drummond Farm which was owned by white commercial farmers. I worked there for five years. And it was during this time that I really learned what farming was about. I got my tractor and truck driving licences and started to look for better work opportunities. I managed to get a job as a truck driver for a sugarcane haulier where I worked for 14 years.”
But just before Christmas and at the height of the 1990 harvesting season, Bohlela had a serious truck accident.
“The vehicle was really damaged, but I survived. I was given a two-month suspension without pay and a two-year warning. I realised then that working for someone else was not for me. I had to earn my own income running my own business,” he said.
He then started a contracting business cutting sugarcane for small-scale growers.
“I was short of money though. I managed to secure a R15 000 loan from Illovo Sugar to buy a tractor. I leased a few trailers for the contracting business and at the same time managed to work as a truck driver. I worked eight-hour shifts in the trucking job, and once I was finished, I would go out and push my contractor work for another three or four hours before going home to get some sleep.”
Spending time with his family was a luxury he just couldn’t afford.
“I over-worked myself. I was not getting enough sleep and at the same time I was trying to fund my contracting business from of my driver’s salary. I had to pay my workers and buy fuel first, I just wasn’t able to provide properly for my family and my relationship with my wife and family became very strained.”
And as if that weren’t enough, Bohlela’s lack of schooling then dealt him a severe blow. “Illovo Sugar was deducting the repayments for the loan from the proceeds of the cane I was delivering to the mill. But I couldn’t read the statements they were sending me, so I could not understand why I was not getting any money from my contracting business. For three weeks I had just 47c in my pocket. I couldn’t even buy a half-a-loaf of bread. I was in deep financial trouble. For four months I had no income and no one to explain to me the details of the statements and why I wasn’t getting any income. I also did not understand English very well, so even trying to get a good understanding of how the sugarcane industry worked was very difficult for me.”
Determined as ever, though, Bohlela started to teach himself English and turned to an old farming friend, Pat McBean – a nearby sugarcane farmer – to explain what was reflected on the statements.
“Eventually in August 1992 I received my first cheque for the business. It was R8 000. I paid off most of my debts. I was still working though as a truck driver between April and December – during the harvesting season – and then I would work as a bus driver from January to the end of March,” he said.
But fate was to deal another blow.
“I was driving one of the trucks when I passed a serious accident. A bakkie carrying a load of workers had overturned and those who were on the back of the vehicle were scattered all over the road. I saw the people were my employees and it was my bakkie.
“It was a terrible shock and it made me realise I had too much on my plate. I resigned from my job as a driver immediately to concentrate on my business,” he said.
Buying scrapped implements which he refurbished, Bohlela started to build what has become a commercial-scale operation today. He owns four truck haulers, seven tractors, two cranes, two sugar cane farms and three houses.
In 1996 with an Ithala Bank loan and money scraped from his savings, Bohlela bought his first farm.
In 2001 he bought his second with some hard lessons along the way including labour strikes at the mill resulting in the loss of thousands of rands in income and continuing to repay his bank loan.
Despite the ongoing hardship which included the death of his young son and years of learning about the sugar industry the hard way, Bohlela is now considered one of the most successful large-scale black growers supplying sugarcane to the Sezela mill on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
“I have worked hard. I have persevered because I was determined to succeed. I wanted to have my own business, my own farm and now I do. But I have that because I prioritised my business and I sacrificed a lot,” he said.
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